Those Reviled Perfectly Legal Employee Dress Codes

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Workers around the world shared a good chuckle Wednesday when the Wall Street Journal reported on the meticulous, 43-page dress code that banking giant UBS AG recently imposed on its retail branch employees in Switzerland.

Among the highlights: Women must button their jacket when standing, unbutton it when sitting. Men must tie knots that match the shape of their face and body. Women should wear "light makeup consisting of foundation, mascara and discreet lipstick" because doing so will "enhance your personality." Men who are graying shouldn't dye their hair because the "artificial color contrasts excessively with the actual age of your skin."

Short sleeves, cuff links, stubble, a preponderance of facial hair and jackets stored on wire hangers are verboten. Same goes for short socks that don't completely cover one's calves when seated. And garlic, onions and smoking at lunch are out of the question.

Dress Codes, Dress Codes, Everywhere

Of course, you don't have to look far to find other employers with excruciatingly detailed policies on how their workers should clothe and groom themselves. My inbox is filled with tidbits from workers whose employers have banned everything from red power suits to Dockers (not the pants style, just the brand) and enforced guidelines about jewelry, nail polish, sideburn length, skirt length and visible panty lines.

Take Charlotte, who worked at a large business services company in Oklahoma with a dress code that sounds like it was lifted from a "Mad Men" script.

"They still require women to wear skirt suits, nylons and heels," e-mailed Charlotte, who recently left the company and, like all workers interviewed for this column, didn't want her real name used. "Pants are not an option for women, even when traveling for business. How many times people mistook me for a flight attendant over the years!"

Then there's Natalia, whose dress code during her tenure with the estate of a well-known rock musician was unexpectedly unyielding.

"I expected a very laid-back, rock-n-roll-type atmosphere," Natalia said. "But the family was surprisingly conservative. We were required to wear nylons with skirts or dresses, and we could not wear denim. I would have expected those kinds of rules at a bank or a law firm, but the estate of one of the world's most famous rock stars? Not so much."

Heck, even the New York Yankees maintain a strict facial hair policy.

Yes, Virginia, They Can Make You Wear That

Denim devotees and facial hair fanatics might wonder whether they have to take such workplace regulations lying down. According U.S. legal experts, in most cases, if you intend to hang onto your job, the answer is yes.

"Employers don't need a logical reason for having a dress code," said business litigation attorney Eric Adams, a partner with the Tampa office of the firm Shutts & Bowen. "But they do have to have a business-related reason for it."

In addition, employers need to clearly communicate the company dress code to employees, enforce the code across the board and be willing to accommodate employees whose religious or ethnic beliefs clash with the dress code—for example, a Jew who wears a yarmulke, a Sikh who wears a beard or a Quaker who doesn't wear makeup.

But what about those time-warp-happy employers who ban their female staff from wearing pants? The directive to put on hose and a dress skirt every day may be hopelessly retro, but Adams said, it's legal.

While few and far between, Adams explained, "those sorts of dress codes have been challenged and upheld" in the U.S. court system. Trying to sue them away "would be a significant uphill battle," he added.

Still, that doesn't make oppressive dress codes right. Nor are they necessarily smart on the employer's part.

"It's a bigger question of employee retention and happiness," Adams said. "Are people going to make the choice of wanting to work there and wanting to stay there if they have that policy?"

Workplace expert Alexandra Levit agrees.

"For most employers, this level of micromanagement is going to come across a bit condescending and unnecessary," said Levit, who's host of JobSTART101, a free online course that prepares college students and recent grads for the workforce.

"If your employee is seated in a cubicle most of the day, does it really matter whether she is wearing a dark blazer or a colorful cardigan that allows her to express her individuality?" Levit explained. "A dress code should prevent employees from offending others with their attire, not turn them into automatons."

That said, defying the office dress code or bemoaning it to your manager obviously isn't the smartest move in today's job market. You may hate wearing the monkey suit, but there are legions of qualified workers waiting in the employment wings who will be all too happy to walk in your shoes, no matter how uncomfortable they are.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.